The tricky thing about trying to reduce pollution is that Americans make so much of it, in all sorts of different ways, and at greatly varying scales. We get why it makes sense to curb pollution from coal-burning power plants; they pollute on a huge scale.

Here’s a trickier one: industrial boilers, the large steam-producing systems used by institutions for heat and power. There are a lot of them, and all together they produce a lot of pollution too. But it’s much trickier politically, since tightening pollution levels from boilers (and industrial incinerators) means imposing costs on hospitals and manufacturers and schools. For a decade, the EPA has been trying to figure out where to draw the line on the issue, how to decide between the huge benefits of reducing pollution and the huge backlash that would come from providing those benefits.

An industrial boiler in Reno.

An industrial boiler in Reno.

After reviewing feedback on its initial regulatory proposal, the agency late yesterday released the final standard — apparently deciding to prevent backlash as much as pollution. From The Washington Post:

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For the first time, large boilers and cement kilns will face strict limits on mercury, acid gases and fine particulate matter, or soot. But the EPA will give boiler owners three years to meet the new standards, with a possible extension for another year after that, meaning the earliest they will take effect would be in 2016. Cement plants will not have to comply with the new limits until September 2015, two years after they were originally set to take place.

The rules for cement plants are looser and have later deadlines than the EPA had originally proposed. While the rules affect far more boilers than cement plants, the damage cement plants do is far worse, per unit.

There are fewer than 115 cement plants in the United States, but they account for seven percent of the mercury emitted into the air from stationary sources. Mercury contamination gets into the food chain when it enters waterways and soils in the form of precipitation and can cause neurological damage in infants and young children.

Although the most restrictive limits will affect just 1 percent of the nation’s nearly 1.5 million boilers, industry had fought restrictions in the past because these facilities are integral to the operations of hospitals, paper plants and factories. Boiler operators had sought to delay the rules by five years, until 2018.

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The measures will deliver significant health benefits and impose major costs on the U.S. manufacturing sector. Meeting the standards for boilers and some incinerators will cost industry between $1.3 billion and $1.5 billion annually, the EPA estimates, and is expected to avoid up to 8,100 premature deaths, prevent 5,100 heart attacks and avert 52,000 asthma attacks each year once fully implemented. The annual cost of the cement rules will run a few hundred million dollars, according to the agency, while delivering billions annually in health benefits.

epa boiler rule

Only a small percentage of boilers will need substantial improvements.

You know this rule is tilted toward the polluters because the cement industry is just fine with it:

The Portland Cement Association welcomed the revisions. “EPA’s revised rule strikes the right balance in establishing compliance limits that, while still extremely challenging, are now realistic and achievable,” Greg Scott, president of the industry group, said.

And here’s Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), no fan of the EPA, as reported by The Hill:

“We welcome EPA’s revisions to make these rules more workable and achievable. EPA itself acknowledged that its original rules were flawed and rightfully commenced a reconsideration process,” Whitfield added in a Friday statement.

In a press release, the Natural Resources Defense Council called the final standard “a mixed bag.” Earthjustice attorney James Pew told the Post the final regulations were “an avalanche of bad news.”

Any regulation, any restriction on pollution, is better than no restriction. The cost and health savings the EPA estimates are not insignificant. But it’s another foot shuffled forward when environmental and health advocates were hoping for a leap.

If you are looking for something dull and hard-to-parse to read over the holidays, the final regulation is posted online. Enjoy.

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